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Rural Alaska

Residents rally behind teenage Gambell whaler

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: May 15
  • Published May 5

Residents across the Arctic and from subsistence communities around the state are rallying behind a young whaler from Gambell who scored the village's second bowhead whale strike of the spring season.

From public posts of pride about the culture of whaling, to photos of maktak, to encouragement to flood Facebook with photos of proud whalers, Alaskans are speaking out against the cyberbullying of the Gambell teen.

A story about the young whaler, 16-year-old Chris Agragiiq Apassingok, ran on KNOM Radio Mission and was then picked up by Alaska Dispatch News.

From there, the internet carried it far and wide. The post, and responses to it, were shared hundreds of times by Alaskans, many of whom lauded the teen, and by people outside the state, where it picked up steam with anti-whaling groups around the country.

In the days since, many of these groups' supporters have hit back hard at Apassingok for his participation in whaling, in some cases sending crude memes and messages to his personal Facebook account, in other cases commenting in culturally degrading ways on public posts about him on Facebook.

His mother, Susan Aakapak Apassingok, said her son has received hate mail and has been trolled on social media, predominantly by adults.

"He's receiving dirty, evil messages … and he's just a kid," she said.

This 200-year-old female bowhead whale was caught off Gambell by 16-year-old Chris Apassingok. (Karen Trop / KNOM)

Susan started a GoFundMe crowdfunding account the same day, which had already reached half of its $5,000 goal by Tuesday.

"He does not deserve this type of treatment for providing for his family, his community, those that cannot provide for themselves," his mother wrote on the page. "We are going to pursue legal action."

The money raised through the account is expected to go toward paying legal expenses, she said. It's unclear at this time what kind of legal action could be taken to counter the online harassment.

"As the granddaughter of an Inupiaq whaling captain, I try to prevent my bias from overshadowing what's going on here," wrote Kawahine Danner, a college student from Utqiagvik. "I'm all for exchanging beliefs, but cyberbullying a minor who was trying to feed his village is just blatant cruelty. We need to band together and educate our peers about subsistence and bullies. We will persist."

One individual, Paul Watson, was named on the GoFundMe page. Watson is a well-known environmental activist who was an early member of Greenpeace and later went on to form the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which was featured on the reality television show "Whale Wars."

Watson has posted about Apassingok and whaling numerous times over the last week. In an April 28 post on Facebook, Watson wrote:

"My post from a couple of days ago on this page deploring the killing of a 200-year-old bowhead whale by some 16-year-old who was joyfully boasting of his snuffing the life from such a majestic creature seems to have ruffled some feathers. Some are calling me racist. Others are demanding an apology. There will be no apology. Not now, not ever."

The "ruffled feathers" Watson mentioned include many residents from whaling communities across the Northwest Arctic, North Slope and Bering Straits region, who have expressed deep dismay over both Watson's words and what they feel is his encouragement of the bullying of a teenager.

"I can't pretend to understand how any adults feel the need to encourage other adults to cyber stalk a 16-year-old for providing food for an entire village, but he has," wrote Maija Katak Lukin of Kotzebue. "What most couch bullies don't understand is the need for 'supplemental' food from the land that our people have been living off for thousands of years. Maybe the other way around … we need supplemental food from the store because of the introduction of non-local foods …. Congrats Chris and family, how proud you must be!"

Gambell is a small village on St. Lawrence Island, with only a handful of locally run stores.

Nasugraq Rainey Hopson of Anaktuvuk Pass has been vocal in her support of Apassingok and her condemnation of Watson's actions.

"He uses his 'love' for animals to justify culture bashing and racism and bigotry," she wrote on Facebook. "We can't cower, we can't hide. There will always be haters no matter how we cover up our brown bodies. Always. If it is not one thing it is another. And being upset means this matters. We matter."

Apassingok's story has struck a chord with people around the state, some of whom have argued that perhaps it would be better not to share stories of things like whaling in the public sphere, to prevent this kind of response. For others, especially a handful of young people in Alaska Native communities where subsistence is central to everyday life, it's sparked both a sense of pride and hurt.

"When I see this happen it makes me feel sad and angry. Yet it makes me think on how uneducated people are on our First Nations peoples. That is the sad part," said Tatiana Ticknor of Anchorage, who is closer in age to the Gambell whaler. "We are a culture still living and breathing today. What Chris did was an amazing accomplishment to him and his community."

Mike Aak'wtaatseen Hoyt, an educator and a member of the Juneau Tlingit and Haida Community Council, said he is planning to write a letter of support for Apassingok and introduce it at the next council meeting.

"I thought it was so awesome to see a young man living his traditions in such an important way," Hoyt said. "Food is such an integral part of culture and the way this hunt is communal especially reinforces its importance."

Watson, of the Sea Shepherds, is no stranger to conflict over cultural and traditional foodways. He was an outspoken critic of the Makah Reservation's push to reintroduce whaling to their western Washington state community in the late 1990s and early 2000s, sending representatives from his organization to comment at public meetings in opposition to the practice.

"The Makah received heaps of hate mail, harassments in restaurants and on ferries, and even death threats," wrote Rob van Ginkel in a 2004 paper for the journal Etnofoor, as quoted by Indian Country Today in a story on the Makah and whaling.

Many of the people who have vocally supported Apassingok over the last week have expressed concern over this tension — that a teenager has found himself at the center of a decades-long debate over the practice of whaling, simply for practicing what he was taught to do.

"For centuries, our people have been hunting whales and when one is struck, it is cause for celebration," his mother wrote on the GoFundMe page. "Our people go out into the Bering Sea during the spring and catch whales. This is what is taught to the generation that comes after us. It is a way of living. Chris has been brought up in a traditional lifestyle and provides food for the community and the surrounding communities."

For Hoyt, aside from the hurtfulness of cyberbullying in and of itself, that is the crux of the issue.

"As an educator, I see the struggle of indigenous youth trying to navigate a world that doesn't always recognize the importance of culture in their lives, or celebrate their accomplishments in the culture. When I saw the original article highlighting this, I was ecstatic. I thought, 'This is what it's all about, teaching youth and giving them the opportunity to put the knowledge, skills and values into practice,' " he said.

"Then, to follow that up with seeing the ignorance and hate. … I've seen kids start to internalize that ignorance and hate and I just hope he internalizes the support and love he is getting for living his culture instead of the hatred and anger of people who have no idea what they are talking about."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

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